UPDATED: Vidar Helgesen, the Norwegian government minister who all but shot down a controversial wolf hunt just before Christmas, now finds himself under enormous pressure to allow the full extent of it after all. Hundreds of protesters who feel threatened by wolves were due to gather in Oslo on Wednesday, to demand that roughly two-thirds of Norway’s wolf population be eliminated. Helgesen’s boss, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, said Wednesday morning that her government would re-evaluate how much damage the wolves really can do.
The brunt of the anti-wolf protesters are coming from rural Hedmark County in eastern Norway, where many of the wolves targeted now roam. Ketil Skogen, a senior researcher specializing in wildlife management, noted recently that they’re not only farmers and ranchers who want to protect their free-grazing sheep from predators. Skogen notes that there actually aren’t many sheep in the forested areas of Hedmark that are within zones already established to allow wolves.
He noted that others are now actively opposing wolves in their areas. “Wolves create trouble for moose hunters with dogs, and some residents of rural towns who think it’s uncomfortable to have wolves nearby,” Skogen wrote in newspaper Aftenposten. After studying Norway’s heated debate over wolves for years, Skogen also pointed to what he called an “historic new coalition between the rural working class and forest owners,” who have now pitted themselves against those they view as “urbane conservationists” who want to protect wolves. The “rural working class” doesn’t want wolves in their neighbourhood, and the forest owners earn large sums of money on Norway’s annual moose hunt, Skogen noted. They want hunters to kill the moose, not wolves who also can scare moose away.
Demonstrators to demand that 47 wolves be shot
Now the forest owners are among the farmers’ organizations, politicians and local residents due to demonstrate in Oslo and demand that all 47 wolves targeted in the original hunt be shot, not just the 15 that Minister Helgesen allowed when he decided upon what was supposed to be a final appeal of the wolf hunt cleared earlier by regional authorities. He based his decision, which radically pared back the original hunt, on legal advice from the Justice Ministry that the wolves wouldn’t do enough damage to livestock to justify the full hunt.
Critics have been howling ever since. Among the protesters are politicians from Helgesen’s own Conservative Party in Hedmark, including the president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen. Also signalling their participation in Wednesday’s demonstration in Oslo were 118 local mayors and some members of the government’s own support parties. While environmentalists and many wildlife experts hailed Helegesen’s decision in December that saved 32 wolves from slaughter, he has also faced opposition from his fellow government minister in charge of agriculture from the Progress Party.
The pressure on Helgesen to reverse his order that curtails the wolf hunt is so great that Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who leads Norway’s Conservative Party, joined him in a meeting on Tuesday with officials from Hedmark’s Conservative Party chapters. The Hedmark delegation felt obliged to represent their areas’ strong local opposition to wolves, and warned that banning the full wolf hunt will seriously hurt the Conservatives in an election year.
No solution to the conflict was agreed upon at the meeting, while newspaper Dagsavisen reported Wednesday that the Conservative MP Gunnar Gundersen from Hedmark hinted that Helgesen should resign, Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale of the Progress Party said he can’t accept Helgesen’s decision and Thommessen wants a new evaluation of the hunt, claiming that the Conservatives “can’t live with” Helgesen’s decision. By mid-day Wednesday, Solberg was telling news bureau NTB that her government would re-evaluate the “damage potential” of the wolves. “There may not be a licensed hunt, but that doesn’t mean (more) wolves can’t be taken out this year. It depends on the damage potential of a rising wolf population.”
Holding firm, so far
Helgesen was so far holding firm in his evaluation, based on the legal advice of a justice ministry that’s headed by the Progess Party, that the wolves in Hedmark’s established wolf zone don’t post a great enough threat to livestock and therefore can’t be shot. If he allowed the hunt in Hedmark, he claimed, he’d put Norway in violation of international treaties aimed at preserving wildlife diversity. Regional authorities had approved the licenses to kill 47 wolves, 24 of which were within established wolf zones including Hedmark. Helgesen ended up approving licenses to kill “only” the 15 wolves, all roaming outside Norway’s wolf zones.
While the demonstrators take to the streets of Oslo, Helgesen planned to meet Wednesday afternoon with representatives of the four parties in Parliament that initially compromised on the management of Norway’s wolf population: his own Conservatives, the Conservatives’ government partner the Progress Party, their support party the Christian Democrats and the opposition Labour Party. The meeting was called on December 22, long before the critics announced their demonstration, with Helgesen saying it was “natural” to meet after so much opposition has already arisen. “We face a demanding situation regarding our management of wolves,” Helgesen said. He acknowledged that the wolf population (estimated at 65-68) is currently higher than the parliament’s goals, but that he lacked legal authority to approve shooting up to 32 wolves in established zones in Hedmark, plus the 15 he did approve. Now it appears Solberg want to find such legal authority.
Knut Storberget of Labour, a former justice minister himself from Hedmark, was already demanding that a new compromise be worked out. He claimed Helgesen’s interpretation of Norway’s international obligations to protect wolves was too narrow. “We believe there is a foundation (for the hunt) since the wolf population in Norway is no longer threatened with extinction and because we have damage potential among hunters, fishermen, grazing livestock and folks’ sense of security,” Storberget told Dagsavisen. Among them was a Hedmark resident interviewed by state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday, who claimed she’d seen seven wolves just outside her front door. She didn’t want her elk hound, or children, to be “guinea pigs” for testing actual damage potential.
The small Center Party, which represents rural interest and has always supported wolf hunts, opted against taking part in any compromise on wolves and was once again pitting the countryside against the city. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, a farmer from Hedmark, suggested that those wanting to protect wolves “forget that not all of Norway lives within Ring 3 (the highway around central Oslo).” That’s already proven to be untrue. The vast majority of Oslo residents has supported the reappearance of wolves in the city’s eastern forest (Østmarka) and one Oslo resident even suffered the loss of his dog to a wolf in an urban area on the city’s east side. That didn’t prompt him to demand a wolf hunt in Østmarka.